I’m not very experienced or knowledgeable in the world of the “walking simulator” and I realise that by using that description I may already be marking myself out as a critic of these particular games.
Before picking up Drowning, a short game developed by Polygonal Wolf and Sometimes You, about a young boy trying to cope with depression, the only other walking sim I’d played was Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture which I couldn’t decide if I liked or not.
As someone who has grown up with platformers and puzzle games and matured into first-person shooters, survival horror and stealth games, I now have this in-built instinct to jump, solve, shoot, run and hide. It’s that lack of having something to do that I find difficult with these games, and makes me feel like a massive hypocrite because when it comes to games one of the main things I look for is a good story.
When I first started playing Drowning I admit I was decidedly disinterested and as soon as I discovered there was a sprint button I actively raced through the text as I read it. Then I realised I was doing this game a massive disservice. I started again and this time made more of an effort to experience the journey the game takes you on.
Drowning is based on one person’s experiences of depression which is quite a brave topic to address. The portrayal of mental health problems in any kind of media is a bit of a thorny issue and while the stigma around mental illness has decreased over the years, there’s still a fair way to go.
This hour-long game takes you on a young boy’s journey through school and his slow realisation and battle with depression. In each chapter you walk through a series of low-poly environments, with the protagonist’s innermost thoughts typed out in front of you as he describes his depression like a school friend turned bully, and his internal struggle becoming harder to fight.
The controls are as basic as they come. I played this on the PS4 so it was the standard configuration of left stick to move, right stick to look around and holding down the X button gives you a little burst of speed. I will say though, hit the touchpad at your peril. I accidentally swiped it and the camera spins around so fast it almost gave me whiplash.
I do think that walking sims can offer a more respectful and sympathetic way of looking at mental health issues. It doesn’t become “gamified” with puzzles to solve or enemies to kill. But because there are no solid objectives, no puzzles and no enemies to shoot, the story has to be compelling enough to encourage players to carry on. Equally the environment and experience has to be an engaging one otherwise the player loses interest and sadly this is where Drowning comes up a little short.
The low-poly environments are initially quite beautiful as is the gentle piano score punctuated with moments of silence and sounds of nature, but there’s very little variation. Even though the chapters are short it gets very repetitive very quickly. The constant typing sound as the thoughts appear on screen is also a little irritating and quite distracting as it pulls you away from any emotional response you might be feeling.
The pacing of the game also needs some work. Sometimes the quotes come at you relentlessly and other times the gaps between then seem overly long. You could look at this as another metaphor for depression but because the score and design don’t really add anything to the experience I found myself hitting the sprint button occasionally to move the story along.
Perhaps my biggest criticism of the game is the story itself. Yes there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors and there is a lot of repetition, but the themes the game deals with are difficult ones. For the most part Drowning tries to deal with these in an honest, sympathetic way, but sometimes it completely missed the mark. Some of the thoughts feel genuine and heart-breaking. Other times they feel like they’ve been copied and pasted from a symptoms list or a patient guide and lack that human touch.
Without posting any spoilers, I found the ending bordering on sensationalist and a touch offensive. Sadly I think elements of the ending only serve to propagate certain assumptions about depression and undermined the message I thought it was trying to deliver. It does try to end on an optimistic note, but I personally think the take away message from this should have been one of it’s ok to not be ok, never be afraid to ask for help and talk to your mates. Instead, it’s all a bit clumsy.
In defence of the game I think walking sims or adventure games like these can be a good way of addressing quite heavy or controversial topics and what Drowning tries to do is very brave and positive. With a little more work and refinement it could be a really useful and interesting addition to the genre.
This is a game that tackles an important and serious issue head-on and I commend it for that. On the bad side the ending left me a little cold and for a game that took under an hour to complete there were times it really dragged. However, there are glimmers of something good and with a little more polish, focus and purpose it could be great and for less than £2 it’s an interesting window into what living with a mental illness can be like.